On the ground at CPAC: Republicans see Sanders as formidable foe

On the ground at CPAC: Republicans see Sanders as formidable foe
© Greg Nash

The Republican faithful attending this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) warned Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Judge slams Wisconsin governor, lawmakers for not delaying election amid coronavirus outbreak The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden offers to talk coronavirus response with Trump MORE (I-Vt.) could pose the toughest challenge in November among all the Democratic contenders, even as they expressed confidence that President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove' Schumer calls for military official to act as medical equipment czar MORE would handily win reelection.

Interviews with over two dozen attendees at the conservative confab revealed that many think Sanders’s diverse and devoted base of support within the Democratic Party’s left flank sets him up well heading into November compared to his 2020 rivals.

The views on Sanders by the rank-and-file-Republicans contrast with the views from some members of Congress, who believe the self-described Democratic Socialist would easily lose in a general election against Trump, making him the riskiest candidate among the current field of Democrats.

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Sanders has emerged as a front-runner in the Democratic race for the nomination after victories in New Hampshire and Nevada, along with a virtual tie in Iowa against former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Pence defends response, says Trump never 'belittled' virus threat Reuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren MORE

Although he is trailing former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Overnight Health Care: Trump resists pressure for nationwide stay-at-home order | Trump open to speaking to Biden about virus response | Fauci gets security detail | Outbreak creates emergency in nursing homes 16 things to know today about coronavirus outbreak MORE in South Carolina's primary on Saturday, polls show him leading in a handful of the 14 states voting on Super Tuesday on March 3, including in California and Texas, which will award the biggest delegate haul of the night.

“You look at Trump, he’s got this base of supporters [that] is really unmovable. This helped him through impeachment, helped him win the Republican establishment in 2016,” Jacob Palmieri, a senior at University of Maine, said. “Bernie, we don’t agree with him on anything, but he has that same thing.”

Palmieri, however, like most of the Republicans attending CPAC still expressed confidence Trump would prevail in a head-to-head match-up against Sanders.

“Does Bernie have the ability to get moderate Republicans to come over to him? Not really. He’ll end up really only getting that base out.”

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Sanders has stitched together a coalition of supporters including young voters, people of color and working class members to propel him ahead of rivals.

Sanders has rejected concerns he would be vulnerable in November, saying he will be able to increase turnout among Democrats and win back Midwestern states such as Michigan and Wisconsin won by Trump in 2016, as well as promising to bring new voters to the fold. 

The Vermont senator has already demonstrated his ability to tap an army of small donors and volunteers, building a lead in fundraising among Democratic rivals and setting up substantial operations in primary states. 

“I think Bernie would actually give us the [biggest challenge] because he’s actually most like Trump, in the fact that he’s like his alter ego in the Democrats. The establishment hates him, he’s got kind of a grassroots effort,” added Scott Chandler, a New Mexico rancher.

“I think he’s totally whacko, but I do think that there’s a segment of the population that is appealed by that whackoness,” he added.

Several other attendees echoed similar messages, recognizing the progressive following Sanders has cultivated with policies such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, even as those stances have come under attack from his moderate rivals.

“I would say that Bernie Sanders probably poses the biggest challenge just because he has the most support in the younger crowd because of the promises he makes for free college, free health care, free everything,” said Nia Moore, a sophomore at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota.

The views of the Republican faithful contrasts with the views of moderate Democrats who worry Sanders will remain vulnerable to Republican attacks over his views.

Speakers at CPAC's gathering, whose slogan this year is “America vs. Socialism,” spent much of their time bashing Sanders’s policies, painting him as the ringleader of a party that is lurching to the left.

“Today’s Democratic Party has been taken over by radical leftists who want higher taxes, open borders and late-term abortion,” Vice President Pence said during his address on Thursday. “[T]here are no moderates in this Democratic field. Every other one of the Democrats running for president embraces Bernie’s democratic socialism.”  

Not all CPAC attendees thought Sanders would be the Democrats' strongest challenger, with some specifically citing his progressive policies as they looked forward to facing him in November. 

“Mr. Trump’s going to win anyway, but it’ll be a rout,” said Steve Rosamilia, who works in the technology sector in New York City. “America is not ready for a socialist government.”